Archive for April, 2011

The Waste And The Wild

It’s been a few months since my last post, but I’ve now submitted my MA thesis, and recovered a bit from the process of finishing it, so I’m looking on to my next project. While I was finishing my MA thesis, Souvik Mukherjee was kind enough to send me some material based on his presentations and discussions at the Ludotopia conferences, the first in Copenhagen in May last year, the second in Manchester, just this past February (which I wish I could have attended). Mukherjee is interested in an idea from Gilles Deleuze’s work, of spaces that have the possibility of becoming ‘any-space-whatever’, and he connects Deleuze’s concept to the wastelands depicted in games like Fallout 3 and the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series. But Mukherjee suggests that this idea of ‘wasteland spaces’ is a useful way of thinking about video game spaces in general, as ‘zones of possibility’.

Essentially, what we’re talking about here is spaces with a lot of possibilities for becoming place. Place is distinguished from space as, roughly ‘space with stuff attached to it’. The ‘stuff’ can be specific associations, practices, etc. Broadly speaking, space is general, place is specific. Deleuze’s ‘any-space-whatever’ and Mukherjee’s ‘wastelands’ are fundamentally talking about a relationship between space and its possibilities for becoming place.


What I’d like to do is expand on this ‘wasteland’ idea. I’m interested in getting deeper into this relationship between space and place, and how space becomes place, particularly in games. Place is, in a lot of ways, fundamentally about narrative, and narrative is pretty dependent on temporality, so I want to introduce something of a temporal dimension. I’d like to expand on the definition of Mukherjee’s wastelands by saying that wasteland spaces are those spaces where the possibilities for place are expanding, where the range of possible places the space might become is increasing. And I’d contrast this with ‘wilderness’ spaces, which I’d describe as spaces where the range of possibilities for places the space could become are large, but narrowing or contracting, down to a reduced range of possible places the space could become. I can illustrate this distinction with two key video game examples: Fallout 3 and Red Dead Redemption.

Fallout 3 presents a space where the old, pre-War order has collapsed, and there are a lot of opportunities for the space to become ‘any-space-whatever’, and there are more and more possibilities all the time. The Enclave or Brotherhood could take over, Oasis could expand or contract, the water in the tidal basin could be purified or poisoned, Megaton could be destroyed or stabilised, etc. And each of these changes to the space introduces a whole new range of possibilities for places the space could become.

In contrast, Red Dead Redemption presents a space where the ‘wild west’ is being gradually but inevitably overtaken by the march of the modern world, industrialisation, institutional order, scientific progress, etc. The game makes it quite clear that the possibilities for what this space could become are getting narrower every day. This contraction of possibilities plays a large part in the personal narrative of John Marston, and eventually the range of possible places contracts so much that it excludes him entirely.

In redefining ‘wasteland’ from the concept Mukherjee uses, I’d like to think I’m not so much overwriting his definition as I am expanding it, and adding the logical counterpart of that expanded definition, the ‘wilderness’ space. The key point is that both wasteland and wilderness spaces have a large range of possibilities for becoming place, but they differ in the relationship of the space to those possibilities over time. Like Mukherjee’s wastelands, the concepts of wasteland and wilderness spaces I’m talking about are, I feel, useful as metaphors for how a broad range of video game spaces are experienced. And these concepts are likely to become central to the new doctoral project I’m currently planning out.